In the latest instalment of our articles marking the 70th anniversary of the South Shields Gilbert and Sullivan Society, we reach a point in the embryonic group’s history where members were facing a dilemma – where to call home?
The answer is provided by former chairman Michael L. Baker, writing in This World Of Music, a lovingly produced book published in 1998 to commemorate the society’s 50th year.
He says: “Our search for somewhere to present our first show took us all over the town, including innumerable church halls, the Palace Theatre, at Laygate, the Miners Hall, in Imeary Street, the Palladium at the Nook, but all to no avail.
“In desperation we looked again at St Aidan’s Church Hall, off Lawe Road. It was one of the biggest halls we had come across but what a mess it was in.”
Mr Baker explained that it has been used by the military for some years “purpose unknown” and “was just as they left it, filthy dirty, barbed wire and rubbish all over the place.
“The overall appalling condition made it extremely depressing but it was something to work on as a possible home. It was somewhere we could revive amateur theatre in the town and help satisfy the demand for entertainment and the opportunity to perform in those post-war years.”
But with the help of the Reverend Fred Tackley, and the Parish Church Council the society “cleared, cleaned, scrubbed and decorated” the hall, building a stage and fitting lighting and floodlights – “all very makeshift, using domestic fittings and equipment out of scrap materials”.
“Fire precautions consisted of a wet blanket at the side of the stage.
“For the first show, 400 seats were borrowed from the local authority’s parks department.
“And so, by the end of 1948 ‘Yeoman of the Guard’ was on. It was a fantastic achievement. We charged 2s 6d. (12.5p) and the show was sold-out for all nine performances.
“For the next 10 years or so St Aidan’s Hall was our home and we continued to enjoy maximum co-operation from the vicar, the Parish Church Council and Mr Harry Reagan.
“With their support and help our little theatre was improved beyond recognition. We sloped the auditorium floor, put in a balcony, installed an additional outside steel emergency exit as the hall was on the second floor, bought and fixed second-hand theatre seating, improved the stage lighting and back-stage facilities and made a fire curtain.
“In those days just as we were never short of performing talent, we were also never short of volunteers to turn their hands to anything that needed to be done to improve “their” home. For the materials needed to carry out all the improvements the local shipyards were more than generous.”
Just a few years after having tasted such sweet victory, the society was to suffer adversity in the form of an ill-fated attempt to put on a show “fit for a queen”.
“In Coronation year, 1953, the society, like many other organisations, was invited to do something special – and so decided to offer the local authority a “spectacular out-door production of Yeomen of the Guard, in the South Marine Park.
“The council not only accepted the suggestion but also agreed to underwrite the cost of the whole venture,” documents Mr Baker.
“Backing onto the park lake, they built to our requirements, an enormous stage, using scaffolding and canvas, and dug an orchestra pit in the lawn which was big enough to house ‘the terracotta army’ of China.
“The show was rehearsed with a big cast and the production was going to be the spectacular promised. But sadly, just a few days before we opened, there was a terrific storm which demolished all the stage canvasses and flooded the orchestra pit.
“There was no alternative but to abandon the open-air show.
“For those who had already purchased tickets, the show was staged at the then new Redwell School in Marsden Road. It was hardly the ‘spectacular’ we intended.
“This was to be our only venture into open-air productions and our only appearance at Redwell School.”